One year ago, on July 27, 2021, one of the most serious industrial accidents in recent history in the chemical industry occurred at Chempark Leverkusen north of Cologne. Seven workers died in an explosion at a tank farm storing chemical waste. Two of the workers who were killed were immediately found and pulled out. Five were initially considered missing. The seventh death was discovered only after several days.
The sufferings of the bereaved, the wives and children of the workers who died, are great. It is aggravated by the fact that the causes of the accident have not yet been fully clarified and those responsible in the company are not held accountable for the explosion.
A survivor said Rheinische Post a year later: “I feel like I’ve been mutilated.” Her husband was on the morning shift on the day of the accident. The couple with a young daughter was happy. They had bought a house and had dreams and plans. The disaster at the operator Currenta’s chemical park plunged them and other families into the abyss.
Those affected and the workers at Chempark are tormented by the question of how the disaster could have happened and who is to blame. “I really hope those responsible are held accountable. Even if it doesn’t bring back our loved ones,” said the grieving mother Rheinische Post. But one is always postponed, it will take a while. Your lawyer does not yet have access to the files.
Chempark with locations in Leverkusen, Dormagen and Krefeld is one of the largest chemical parks in Europe. At the end of 2016, around 48,000 people were employed here by around 70 companies and service providers based there. This includes the chemical group Bayer and many of its spin-off companies. Currenta is the operating company of Chempark. The company belonged to Bayer until 2007 as the Industry Services division. Until three years ago, Bayer still held a majority stake in Currenta. Australian financial investor Macquarie then took over a majority stake in the company.
The explosion occurred in the tank farm of the Chempark disposal center in Leverkusen-Bürrig. Chemical waste from all other companies in the Chempark is recycled and disposed of here, as well as hazardous waste from outside companies. Three tanks of organic solvents were damaged by the explosion, which caused a fire in the tank farm. Each tank was filled with 200,000 to 300,000 liters. All were “completely or partially destroyed,” as Chempark director Lars Friedrich announced after the explosion.
Shortly after the explosion, it was clear that chemical reactions had occurred in the tanks. However, the operator Currenta only published the information that the authorities forced it to. So it took a long time until a clearer picture of the course of the accident and its cause emerged.
WDR (West German Broadcasting Corporation) reported on 17 June 2022 that Currenta workers and contractors who died or were injured in the explosion had not been given sufficient information about the hazardous nature of the waste. “In the case of the severe explosion at the Chempark in Leverkusen, workers at the hazardous waste facility apparently did not have the necessary information about the hazardous nature of the waste.” This follows from a report by the Ministry of North Rhine-Westphalia. the Environment in the state parliament. Among other things, information on the thermal sensitivity of the waste was missing.
The report states: “Investigations into the cause of the accident carried out so far have shown that the temperature-sensitive waste delivered from Denmark did not contain all the necessary information about the hazardous nature of the waste, such as the tendency to decompose with simultaneous self-heating and volume expansion.”
He goes on to say: “This lack of information in the overall process from waste generation to transport and incineration resulted in the waste being managed above the self-heating temperature and stored in tank number 3, heating as the pressure increased and eventually cause the tank to explode.”
In other words, the workers killed in the explosion were sent to their deaths with their eyes wide open. The management of Currenta had not informed and warned them about it and had not taken other safety measures to prevent the explosion. And here, the maxim “profit before life” was applied in the full sense of the word.
This is not an exaggeration! As early as March this year, WDR reported that Currenta had failed to comply with the basic requirements necessary to operate such a dangerous system. “New details about the Chempark explosion in Leverkusen continue to emerge. They question whether financial interests were more important than quality and safety.” That is, the question of whether profits were more important than the lives of workers. It is obvious that the answer to this question is yes.
The WDR report showed that the basic requirements of the Cologne regional government for the operation of Currenta’s hazardous waste incineration plant were not taken into account. Already in the spring of 2021, several months before the deadly July blast, the security centers at the Currenta sites in Dormagen, Krefeld and Leverkusen had been placed in an “unauthorized” state. In order to save on staff, the control centers were no longer manned around the clock. Additionally, Currenta switched to a new unlicensed software system.
WDR magazine Westpol exposed the security deficiencies at Currenta in late February. In an internal document, officials reported frequent crashes of the complex technology at the security center – “including on the day of the explosion.” The management of the Currenta company, on the other hand, spoke only of occasional collisions that would have made no sense to the business on the day of the accident.
The list of shortages and other incidents can be continued without claiming to be complete: On February 9 of this year there was another explosion at Chempark Leverkusen, from which gas escaped. Just nine days earlier, there had been a fire at the factory premises, in which four workers were injured.
In June this year, Currenta partially restarted the waste incineration plant.
The Cologne prosecutor’s office is now investigating four employees of the waste disposal plant operator for, among other things, manslaughter and causing an explosive explosion by negligence. They are suspected of breaching a duty of care in relation to the storage and processing of waste and thereby causing the accident.
The “Coordination Against Bayer Risks” initiative CBG pointed out months ago that the three initial suspects are employees, not Bayer or Currenta officials, who are shifting their own responsibility downwards.
“With this approach, the prosecution takes measures against the little ones and lets the big ones go. Not the employees, but the management of Currenta and Bayer should be targeted!” explained Marius Stelzmann from CBG.
He added: “As is now known, this is an organizational failure, and those who designed, built and operated the plant are responsible for it, namely the management of the current operator Currenta and the Bayer officials who built and operated the plant. . Last but not least, an economic approach at Currenta that was solely oriented towards the profit principle contributed to the neglect of safety requirements and thus to the disaster.”
CBG also refers to policy and management responsibility. The authorities did not conduct regular security checks. Before the accident, officials from the regional government had stopped at the Chempark in Leverkusen for the last time in 2018. Stricter safety requirements were not imposed in order not to affect the profit-making interests of the companies.
Added to this is the role and responsibility of the works council and the union at Currenta. They see their duty above all in protecting Currenta from critical questions.
A month after the explosion, Currenta works council chairman Artur Oblong made this clear during a council meeting in Leverkusen. Responding to critical questions about the company’s lack of transparency, he replied that the uncertainty – including that of the population – arises mainly because “supposed experts are quoted from somewhere”.
In fact, there is a lot of uncertainty in the population. There is a legitimate fear that further explosions and accidents at the nearby Chempark and hazardous waste incinerator could affect and endanger everyone.
Local resident Gisela Kronenberg, who lives less than two kilometers from the Leverkusen hazardous waste incinerator, remembers the day she heard the loud bang of the explosion.
“I immediately went to the terrace and took a video of the huge cloud. Everyone from Leverkusen probably knows where he was that day. It’s comparable to 9/11,” he told WDR on the anniversary of the accident. Since then, many people in the immediate vicinity have lived with the constant worry of further serious accidents at the Currenta plant premises.
Immediately after the terrible explosion, Currenta refused to give information about the exact chemical composition of the toxic substances contained in the huge cloud that fell on the area as black soot particles. Similarly, Currenta initially denied that the groundwater or the Rhine was contaminated. It was later revealed that a faulty flap in a sewer pipe had caused contaminated firefighting water to flow into a sewage treatment plant and then into the Rhine for months.